Ask anyone what the most difficult part of learning a foreign language is, and most people will probably tell you it’s speaking with proper pronunciation. But why?
The root of the problem may be in the traditional methods of improving pronunciation: Drilling. Many people will tell you that it’s a chore. But more than that, if you’re already insecure about your sound, drilling only reinforces that insecurity. Put simply, the traditional drilling that you learned in school is a negative reinforcement tool. You’re wrong until it’s right.
We think there’s a better way to improve French pronunciation.
Let’s take a closer look. There are four skills involved in language learning – reading, writing, listening, and speaking – two of them are spoken and two of them are written. Additionally, two of them are active and two of them are passive.
When people learn a new language, active and passive language skills develop at different rates. This is evidenced by the experience of all of us language learners around the world, as well as in a paper published in the publication Language Learning from the University of Haifa and the University of Ottawa. For most of us, the passive, or input skills are the first to develop.
Think about how you develop your writing, an output skill. It starts by learning to read! A good writer is a good reader, but becoming a good reader happens first.
According to a study from Azad University in Iran, people tend to have higher levels of comprehension through passive reading and listening skills than active, productive writing and speaking skills. Basically this means that you understand more reading than you can write, and you can understand the spoken language better than you can speak it.
Use listening skills to improve speaking
Think about it. When you read, you observe the spelling of words, how words are strung together to make phrases, you learn techniques, and you start to form a mental image of the natural flow of the language that guides you when you write.
The same relationship exists between listening and speaking. Learning to speak and pronounce things correctly begins by becoming a really good listener. Music, movies, talk radio, television, the internet, and educational programs, in addition to teachers, fellow students, and native speakers all offer us a wide variety of listening sources.
Once you’ve learned the basics of a new language, the way to advance your speaking skills is to engage often in active listening and train your ear to hear the difference between individual sounds. The final step in this process is to begin to hear if what you pronounce sounds like what you heard.
Video: Practice Techniques
Below is an introduction to our video series hosted by a linguist and teacher, entitled Learning by Ear: A Guide to Practicing Pronunciation.
You can watch the entire video series here:
Let’s not forget the real purpose of improving your pronunciation: it’s so people can understand you better. While it can be fun and rewarding to impress people with your amazing talents as a cunning linguist, a more reasonable and realistic goal is “comfortable intelligibility”. It’s been argued for decades that “language learners need no more than a comfortably intelligible pronunciation”
Basically, you have two choices: you can leave your interlocutor (the person with whom you are speaking) annoyed – with constant interruptions, repetitions, and bizarre attempts to say something perfectly – or charmed with your interest and ability to speak their language with them, albeit with a little accent.
Think about it: Americans love the French accent in English! We would never want them to speak just like us. Believe it or not, French people think our accent is cute when English speakers speak French, too. The motto we live by here at News in Slow is: even if it’s not perfect, say it with confidence!
Question: Should I rely on speech recognition software?
Answer: We don’t think so. At a certain point, once you have developed your listening skills, you are the best judge of your own pronunciation – much better than any speech recognition software. The way to move forward is not to “beat” a machine and have your speech “accepted” by an algorithm. Success in French pronunciation comes from developing the skills to know if what is coming out of your mouth sounds like real French.
The bottom line: We think it’s pointless to try to sound like a native speaker right from the beginning. Forcing yourself only leads to frustration and quitting. Good listening and imitation can help you to make consistent progress, without demanding perfection. Learners in general need help in order to notice the difference (or ‘gap’) between their own production and the native model input provided to them, and that’s exactly what these exercises offer.
The human voice is an instrument, and just like a piano player needs to practice and develop the muscles in their fingers, so do we need to practice and develop the muscles involved in speech. Instead of forcing ourselves to nail foreign language pronunciation perfectly every time, we believe that a more natural, intuitive approach is not only more rewarding, but more effective.
1. Laufer, Paribakht, “The Relationship Between Passive and Active Vocabularies: Effects of Language Learning Context, Language Learning. Sep. 1998 [https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/0023-8333.00046]
2. Nemati. Active and Passive Vocabulary Knowledge: The Effect of Years of Instruction, Mar. 2010 [https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Peter_Grimbeek/publication/45192975_Relative_cultural_contributions_of_religion_and_ethnicity_to_the_language_learning_strategy_choices_of_ESL_students_in_Sri_Lankan_and_Japanese_high_schools/links/09e415064a7d665ece000000/Relative-cultural-contributions-of-religion-and-ethnicity-to-the-language-learning-strategy-choices-of-ESL-students-in-Sri-Lankan-and-Japanese-high-schools.pdf#page=30]
3. Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin (1996). Teaching Pronunciation: A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages [https://books.google.com/books?id=twC-H4a8VcYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false]]
4. Abercrombie, D. (1949). Teaching pronunciation. English language teaching, 3, 113-122. [https://academic.oup.com/eltj/article-abstract/III/5/113/485527?redirectedFrom=fulltext]
5. Derwing, T. M., Munro, M. J., & Wiebe, G. (1998). Evidence in favor of a broad framework for pronunciation instruction. Language Learning, 48, 393-410 [https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/0023-8333.00047]